On #OccupyWallStreet and the Power of Open Source and Consensual Processes
I’m fascinated by how many political operatives seem keen to tell the participants in OccupyWallStreet that they are doing lots of things wrong, and really should shape up and follow traditional lines, like issuing demands and seeking to apply pressure in more conventional ways. Given that the movement is getting lots of free and mainly favorable PR and is mushrooming all over the US, there does not seem to be a lot of empirical support for this view.
As numerous readers have pointed out, and the folks in Zuccotti Park recognize all too well, using those strategies now would play into the hands of the existing power structure. Per Richard Kline:
What I found disconcerting about the media’s quest to find the demands motivating the Occupiers was just that single word, ‘demands.’ That together with the rapidity of the media’s insistence that there must be demands. By itself it said everything about the media strategy anti-occupation while also ignoring the substantive statements of individuals at the occupations and the process of the occupations. ‘Demands’ are what disgruntled extremists ‘agitate’ for, in common, anti-popular media presentation of the last twenty years. Demands for ‘special’ pay; demands for ‘special’ treatment. Demands for ‘scapegoats’ to be dragged expensively into court. Demands for ‘acknowledgment’ from the politicos ‘at the top.’ You know: labor ‘demands,’ and all that stuff. The point was/is if demands can be elicited, than those in the occupation must be agitators, which means that they must be malcontents, which means that they must be ‘unrepresentative,’ which means that they must be selfish interests; bums looking for handouts and blood, because that’s who the media presents as having ‘demands’ rather than ‘negotiating’ stances, or operational ‘missions’ like Serious People.
What the occupiers have had are questions. “Why aren’t there indictments for fraud and worse?” “Why are we firing nurses and teachers when corporate profits will hit a RECORD this year?” “Why to the richest pay no tax while state and local governments are crushed with debt?” “Why does the Beltway do absolutely nothing about employment?” “Why have student grants disappeared to be replaced by predatory loans without which we cannot get the education employers and the System demand from us?” These questions may become demands, but they aren’t, yet. They, and most of the rest of us 99%, would realy like to have answers. But the media have done everything possible to exclude questions of this kind, to push them to small, late, interior paragraphs in turgid pabalum articles and to exclude them from the broadcast media altogether.
The most visible controversy has surrounded “what do these people want?” As we’ve argued, “We are the 99%” more than suffices as a high level answer. It is a VERY powerful message. It says “We don’t need to negotiate. This is our country and we want it back from the top 1% which has been selling us out.” The 1% know damned well what the 99% want, which is a more just society. If you forced any 10 in the top 1% of them to make a list of 10 things they thought the other 99% wanted, I guarantee you’d have no more than 16 real issues among the 100 answers you’d get in total. And I strongly suspect the 99% would agree or at most restate them.
But the second source of orthodox consternation is the notion that there has to be a conventional hierarchical structure in place for an effort like this to succeed. The media and the officialdom seem flummoxed by the lack of obvious leaders and official spokesmen.
OWS is an experiment in something more akin to direct democracy and it explicitly places the wishes and needs of the community first. If nothing else it is exercising muscles that have atrophied badly in American discourse.
There seem to be some tacit assumptions in the reactions against the leisurely -looking process of community and consensus building at work in Zuccotti Square and other Occupy gatherings. One is that direct democracy doesn’t scale. There is some truth to that observation. Ancient Athens had 60,000 citizens at its peak.
But the fallacy here is that “not A” which is “not pure democracy” implies that the only alternative is B, which is something like our current way of doing politics. “Not A” is simply “not A”, and there are quite a few successful models which have far more participation by and accountability to a broad community than found in our current social/political arrangements where real influence is concentrated in a very few hands.
One that OWS has invoked is the open source model. Note that large scale open source programs are not lacking in organization; Linus Torvalds was the clear leader of Linux development and had a cohort of lieutenants under him. But this was an ambitious undertaking that was otherwise very informal.
One of the reasons it worked was that there were shared norms as to what good outcomes were, and that members of the community felt they gained something by making contributions that were recognized and valued by their peers. It’s worth stressing that: you had a large group that worked on the potlatch model, where being rewarded via accolades from your peer group was highly motivating. By contrast, the widespread assumption among the elites, that only money is motivating and everyone ultimately can be bought.
The community in Zuccotti Park seems to be building some foundations along these lines. People contribute because they feel it is inherently worthwhile to add a plank to something that will be much bigger. And the elaborate General Assembly process may well be building a set of new shared norms and values on the foundation of the obvious injustice of widespread, unpunished looting by the banks and the failure of the political elites to be responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. It took the populist movement of 19th century over 15 years of organizing against the injustice of the debtcropper system for it to become a potent political force. If OWS can accomplish something like that in six months or even two years, that’s rapid by historical standards.
A second model is the Japanese nemawashi, which is their rather elaborate process of getting internal buy-in for new initiatives. Having been something of a cultural experimental animal (I was the first Westerner hired into the Japanese hierarchy of Sumitomo Bank, which was one of the most prestigious companies in Japan at that time), I’ve found Western descriptions of nemawashi to be a bit naive and romanticized.
Except in owner-controlled companies, which run on top-down Western lines, Japanese companies impose far stronger obligations of the leadership to obtain the consent of the lower ranks for any initiative to more forward (note even this is a bit simplified: decisions are almost never made at the CEO/board level; they happen at the bucho level, which is typically held by men in their early 40s, and are passed up the line for what is almost always the formality of more senior level approval). The notion really is that the company is a community and everyone must pull together; all the Japanese (and yours truly following them) described Sumitomo as “our bank”.
Now admittedly, the Sumitomo version of nemawashi was probably at the decisive end of the spectrum for Japan. Sumitomo was unusually action oriented for a Japanese company and Kansai (Western Japan, such as in Osaka) Japanese are very direct, so the version I was exposed to was much sharper elbowed than what I imagine you’d see elsewhere. The power dynamics were also far more complex than naive Western accounts depict: there were people who knew how to work the system and pretty much everyone involved made careful calculations as to whether an idea looked likely to get done and how much in energy and political capital they’d spend in trying to modify or block it.
Nevertheless, the implicit rights of the members of the organization to dissent with or propose changes to an idea were taken very seriously in Japan, so bank staffers were vastly more willing to oppose an initiative than they would be in the West.
But from what I saw, one Western cliche about nemawashi IS true. Once everyone who had a right to weigh in had been consulted, and a proposal had incorporated all their views, implementation was rapid. You didn’t get the backstabbing and footdragging you see in Western firms. And the plans were always sounder and more robust by virtue of having so many eyes on them.
In other words, the wider world tends to see the slow deliberate process of OWS as a weakness, when it is likely to prove to be strength for the protracted and hard fought struggle of making fundamental, lasting, and positive changes the social and political order. Even though the literal translation of nemawashi “going around the roots”, as in carefully unearthing a bonsai tree so it can be planted in new soil, the image my colleagues always used was “patting the roots,” that is making sure the tree was solidly in place so it would grow well. The OccupyWallStreet participants have a similar focus, of first and foremost making sure their effort is firmly planted so that it can grow.